by Manuela Bucciarelli

UNV Volunteer in Cambodia

The increase in global temperature over the last 200 years is an abnormal and alarming phenomenon, which has been very likely caused by human activities, our habits and the organisation of our societies. The increase of global temperatures should not exceed +2ºC compared to the levels registered before the industrial revolution: if this does not happen, the consequences will most likely be irreversible: extreme climate events such as droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, rise of sea levels, acidification of oceans and the extinction of numerous animal and vegetal species.

The Earth’s climate is quickly changing, causing great concern, political interest and many actions on a global scale. Of all the ongoing changes the most startling is the increase in global temperature. The 10 warmest years since 1880 have been after 1995. However, the variation of the Earth’s temperatures can be caused by human activities. In particular, industrial activities change the composition of the gases in the atmosphere that are enhancing the greenhouse effect.

The Sun provides energy to the Earth through its rays and determines its climate. About 30% of these rays are radiated back into space by clouds and particles in the atmosphere (aerosol). And also by reflective surfaces, such as large deserts and ice sheets. The rest of the radiation gets to the Earth and the oceans, releasing heat. The Earth’s heat is partly trapped by “greenhouse gases”, such as water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). This is the called natural greenhouse effect, without which the temperature on the Earth would be below zero.

To foster industrial development man has cut down forests and burnt fossil fuels (carbon, oil etc) to get energy. This has increased CO2 and methan concentrations in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise. Looking at the last 10,000 years we can see that a sharp increase in CO2 in the atmosphere has occured in the last 200 years, since the 19th Century when the industrial revolution began.

A team of scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a committee composed of more than 2,500 scientists from all over the world, using over 50 climate models based only on natural factors could not replicate the global average temperature trend that is currently being realised. Despite the need to act time is being consumed by debates of how much the temperature will actually be; 1.2 to 6.4 °C over this century, depending on our efforts to stop this process.

Since 1950 the number of heat waves has increased. The number of days with high precipitation  has increased, but not everywhere: the duration and severity of hurricanes and tropical storms have also increased since 1970. In 2003 the heat wave that hit Europe broke every record: over 52,000 victims in nine countries. 18,000 people died in Italy, 14,800 in France. Not only have these events increased in frequency, but also in severity.

The Alps glaciers have shrunk by more than  50% since 1850 and by the end of the century they might almost disappear! According to the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), 80% of South America glaciers will disappear in the next 15 years.

In addition to the damages to the environment and the humans, it will involve high economic costs. According to the famous Stern Review – directed by the World Bank’s former head economist – long-term costs of climate change could exceed by 20% the world gross domestic product (GDP). On the contrary, middle-term costs to reduce greenhouse gases emissions are, in Stern’s opinion, equal to 1% of the world GDP.

Although these estimates are contentious, the point is always the same. The cost of “doing nothing” is far higher than that of “doing something” to turn about.

The first global operating agreement to fight climate change was the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) was an agreement among the governments of 150 countries, including European states, which was not ratified by the USA. It aimed at a global reduction of CO2 emissions by  5.2% by 2012 compared to 1990 levels.

Copenaghen 2009 is the 15th International Conference on Climate Change which will be held on 7-18 December 2009. It is considered a crucial engagment because far-reaching agreements must be taken and shared by all countries. Different from the Kyoto Protocols, the most polluting countries (USA, Europe and China) play a key role.

It is now clear that drastic cuts in emissions will not be enough to avoid – at least partially – some of the consequences of climate change, such as drought, heat waves, sea level rise and extreme weather events. We have to be ready to change. A key point of the negotiations will be the financing, by “rich” countries (those emitting more CO2), of projects to help the least developed countries to adapt to the change.

The negotiations aim fundamentally at  turning off “the tap” at the source, that is at mitigating the cause of global warming, by cutting CO2 emissions. A serious decision is necessary to save us from climatic catastrophe, and, following IPCC recommendations, this means that we must commit to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

This article was part of a recent Climate Change presentation that Manuela and her friends compiled  in Cambodia for International Volunteer Day. To view the original presentation please check:

For more information about the 15th Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen please check:


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